Feds raid Nashville food warehouse Rats, droppings found at distributor

June 18th, 2010

By Clay Carey

Federal agents seized food valued at more than $1 million from a Nashville distributor on Wednesday, claiming the products had been contaminated by rodents, insects and other filth.

The raid at the Won Feng Trading Co. warehouse took place after“>U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors visited the warehouse and found live birds, live and dead rodents and rat feces mingling with food. The company distributed food to small restaurants in the Nashville area. State and federal agents did not know how many local restaurants buy food from Won Feng.

“These seizures are very rare,” said FDA spokesman Tom Gasparoli. From October 2008 to September 2009, the government raided only two businesses nationwide over food sanitation issues.

State health officials said no illnesses have been reported in connection with the warehouse.

“This was not a bacterial issue,” Gasparoli said. “It was filth.”

A manager at Won Feng Trading Co. declined to comment on the seizure Wednesday afternoon. According to state records, the company has been licensed to do business in Tennessee since January 2006.

Gasparoli said Won Feng received food from across the United States and distributed it to small restaurants here. Gasparoli also said he did not know the names of the restaurants that bought food from the warehouse.

On Wednesday, agents seized a wide variety of bulk foods, including 44-pound bags of rice, fresh produce and frozen food, from Won Feng’s Eugenia Avenue warehouse and cooked cabbage operation.

Government inspections of Won Feng Trading Co. have turned up problems dating to 2007.

An inspection in February and March of 2009 resulted in“>a warning letter ordering the company to correct serious violations. Among the problems cited in that letter:

• Rodent droppings and urine stains on two cases of chili garlic sauce.

• Rodent nests on a pallet of plastic cup lids.

• Bags of cracker meal stained with urine and blood. Rodents also had gnawed some bags.

• More than 100 insects — alive and dead — on bags of rice.

• Live birds flying in the produce storage area. Inspectors saw the birds occasionally land on boxes of eggs and produce.

• Foul smelling residues and apparent mold growth under a spinning drum in a dryer used to process cabbage.

Gasparoli said the company told the FDA in June that the problems had been fixed, but inspectors went back and found similar conditions.

During the last state inspection in late October,“>Tennessee Department of Agriculture spokesman Tom Womack said inspectors found “evidence of rodent activity” and required the company to destroy some products immediately. That state inspection led to Wednesday’s seizure.

It was unclear Wednesday whether restaurants that do business with Won Feng had been notified of the alleged issues.

Company still in operation

In situations where food is seized over filth, but not bacteria, it is typically the duty of the company to inform customers about the problems, Gasparoli said.

“We can’t order a company to do a recall,” he said. The FDA has suggested that companies do recalls in the past, he said, though he was unsure if that suggestion was made to Won Feng.

Federal officials said the company remained in operation after the seizure. Womack said that the state has the authority to revoke Won Feng’s business license. As of Wednesday afternoon, it had not done that.

He said the federal penalties the company could face would be stiffer than state sanctions.

Danny Shelton, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals service, said the seized food has been sealed up and will remain inside the building while FDA agents inventory it. He said the restaurant management is under court order not to disturb it.

Shelton said some products, like canned food and items sealed in glass jars, remained part of the warehouse’s inventory but that “the vast majority of (the food) was seized.”

Gasparoli said Wednesday afternoon that there were no indications that the seizure would lead to criminal charges.

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